The defeat of the Labor Government in New South Wales at this Saturday's election will be, on balance, a good thing. Liberal leader Barry O'Farrell appears a decent and reasonable man, with scarcely an ideological bone in his body. The electorate will anoint him as premier with a gargantuan majority.
Why will O'Farrell's majority be so big? Shouldit be so big? These are two different questions.
The answer to the first is simple enough. Sheer longevity is a factor in play, of course, though long-standing governments – even incompetent ones – have survived before in Australia, or have been defeated by only modest margins. Billy McMahon's Liberal-Country Party government of 1971-2 is regularly ranked among the worst in the nation's history, and it presided at the tail-end of 23 years of Coalition rule. Yet Labor's winning margin on 2 December 1972 was a slim 9 seats (67 to 58), in a parliament of 125 members.
By contrast, it would not surprise on Saturday if NSW Labor were left with as few as 10 seats in a parliament of 93. A figure of around 20 seats appears more likely, but, even so, that would be a massacre in anyone's language.
Coalition partisans will object that Kristina Keneally's Government (2009 to date), and those of Nathan Rees (2008-9), Morris Iemma (2005-8) and Bob Carr (1995-2005) before it, have been "disastrous" or the "worst in memory" – hopelessly incompetent, criminally short-sighted, deep-seatedly corrupt etc., etc. But that sort of glib cant will not suffice either.
True, a good many voters now assert those things to be so. Some must believe them to be so. But, self-evidently, far fewer voters held such beliefs at the elections of 1999, 2003 and 2007. On each occasion, Labor was re-elected by a crushing margin.
The people were not fools then, and they are not fools now. What – genuinely – has changed?
For a start, there's the O'Farrell factor. The Opposition Leader is tough and presentable. At each of the previous three NSW elections the Liberal Party had saddled itself with an unconvincing leader, less electable each time – Kerry Chikarovski in 1999, John Brogden in 2003 and Peter Debnam in 2007. (The dour but credible Peter Collins, dumped for Chikarovski in 1998, would surely have fared better than any of them.)
Since Carr's retirement in mid-2006, Labor has played musical chairs with its leadership. In March 2007 the people of New South Wales endorsed the premiership of Morris Iemma, a safe pair of hands in the O'Farrell mould. Regrettably, Iemma resigned in September 2008 after being rebuffed over his proposal to sell electricity assets and his choice of ministry. Iemma's successors, Nathan Rees and Kristina Kenneally, did not enjoy the aura of legitimacy which only an election win can bring, and neither possessed sufficient gravitas to succeed without it.
Both Rees and Keneally are talented and hard-working politicians. It's to be hoped that both have long public careers ahead of them; neither, to any significant degree, is personally to blame for Labor's current predicament in NSW. Keneally was thrown a hospital pass. But if plain truth be told, neither was ready to be premier.
Leadership issues aside, Labor's internal discipline since Carr's departure has been abysmal. A string of ministers and MPs have been sacked or forced to quit. The nature of their misdeeds has ranged from despicable (Milton Orkopolous – child sex crimes) to trivial (Matt Brown – drunken carousing at a party). One or two were unlucky victims of media prurience. But the overall impression has been ghastly.
And what of the elephant in the room: the dominant Right faction of the NSW Labor Party, with its sick and cynical culture of insularity, bullying and poll-driven survival? In recent years the Fairfax press (The Sydney Morning Herald) has hammered these themes relentlessly. But little has changed. It's a shame that neither Carr nor Iemma tried harder to initiate reform. Both had clout and respect. Rees was ousted after his brave but futile efforts to stir things up.
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